In recent years, Colombia has been full of surprises when it comes to electoral matters, but these have not always of the good kind. Delayed results, accusations of irregularities, and setbacks in the modernization of the voting system have tarnished several events and, although the authorities have started many projects to solve these issues, none has come to fruition yet.
For instance, the creation in 2013 of the Associate Commission for the Implementation of Electoral Technology. After scandalous regional elections, where the system was flooded by dozens of accusations of fraud and voting vices, the National Civil Registry Office began a process of consultation and analysis to modernize the voting mechanisms. This even included an international bidding process with the participation of 16 companies, with the hopes of designing the pilot test of an automated voting model.
Despite these advances, the Commission did not implement any actions, so the Colombian government chose to install in 2017 an Special Electoral Mission, conceived to provide council and turn the ship around, by revisiting the nation’s old and questioned voting model.
Then, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos formalized the start of operations for this Mission as part of fulfilling point number two of the peace agreement signed last November between the government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). This agreement contemplates the “expansion” of democracy through “greater transparency in the voting process”.
Until then, the steps taken by Colombia to transform its voting system had been duly informed to the public, meeting the standard required whenever changes in human right matters are made -political participation in this case.
However, National Civil Registrer Juan Carlos Galindo has done away with the practice, by announcing that the organism he represents “has already designed a pilot plan for e-voting that will be implemented”.
His statements took the country by surprise. Although the Electoral Mission is still active, and it delivered a series of proposal regarding voting modernization last April, the use of electoral technology is still subordinated to the 2004 Act which governs voting automation. The document presented by the Mission does not allude to changes in technology, only to aspects related to the organization and funding of electoral events.
Galindo stated that the pilot has not been carried out due to lack of funds, but gave no details as to the model devised to test e-voting in Colombia.
The last time the country had a conversation about testing electoral technology was in 2013, when the Associate Commission proposed to automate voting in 93 circuits, so a sizable number of voters could experience both the models being proposed back then: optical scanners, based on a ballot with a scanner that identifies and processes ballots for an automatic count; and Direct Electronic Register (DRE), touch-screen enabled machines where the voter makes their choices, which the machine stores, counts and transmits to a tallying centre. These devices also have the capability of printing voting vouchers that reflect the options chosen by the user.
Galindo’s statements set off alarms: it is not known whether the pilot designed meets the characteristics agreed upon in 2013, or if this is a new test, whose reach and conditions are only known to the authorities.
It is understood that any analysis, pilot test or implementation of electoral technology requires a broad consultation. and informing political actors and the general population. This because transparency in the adoption of the automated model chosen is just as vital as its compliance with the nation’s requirements. Colombia must advance in electoral matters, but the Civil Registry Office must show their hand, unreservedly, if they are to be credible.